As some Greeks approach Jesus, he breaks into a soliloquy about his mission and goals. "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified"(John 12:23). Perhaps he is thinking particularly about how his crucifixion will be the ultimate outreach to foreign people (John 12:32). The specifics aren’t clear, but Jesus focuses on the fact that his hour has come (John 12:23). It is time to die.
He expresses his thoughts by a series of paradoxes. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”(John 12:24-25). Wheat dies to live. Loving your life means you lose it. Hating your life means you find it. Death means judgment for the world, but not for Jesus (John 12:31). For Jesus, death means success (John 12:32).
All of this seems obscure and frightening. The point is that there are higher purposes than just staying alive. If we become convinced that our survival is the most important thing, we’ll sacrifice truth, justice, love, and service for our own survival. Then we begin to add other things—I want to survive comfortably, happily, peacefully, etc. while God's priorities fall further into the background.
But when we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our God (“hates his life,” John 12:25), we can then truly live. It is then that we achieve his purposes and find meaning whether we live or die. This is Jesus’ perspective.
All of this has application to the current global concern about the coronavirus pandemic. There are more important things than our physical survival. How we treat others, honor God, control ourselves, do good in the world, place hope and faith in Jesus, and model Christian perspectives on life matters more than whether we survive a few more years. Jesus knows he is facing death and approaches it unafraid. He will behave the same way whether he lives or dies. Disciples know that--unless Jesus returns first--they will die. With that constant awareness, we should focus attention on how we are living rather than simply on prolonging our lives. None of this means that we should be reckless with our lives or cold to those who are suffering. Rather, we serve, help, and mourn without fear--like Jesus.
Jesus wants us to think through the implications of leadership. If I am going to lead you, you assume some things about me: that I know where I’m going and that my understanding surpasses yours and will help you. You assume I can see. “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?”(Luke 6:39).
The troubling part of the blind leading the blind is not the blind follower. It’s natural that a blind man understands his need for help and seeks to be led. The tragic mistake is that in his blindness he has enlisted the help of someone no better off than himself. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher”(v. 40). We will not rise above our teacher; we will only become like him. Implicit in Jesus’ words is the fact that we must choose those to whom we listen. There is danger in following others who are just as blind as we are.
In our time, there are so many voices vying for our attention and allegiance. Scientists, political figures, and religious thinkers are seeking adherents. These are in addition to the arrogance of the “ordinary” man who assures himself and others that he has things figured out. But how can the blind lead the blind?
What about Jesus? Jesus gives divine wisdom and testifies of things beyond this world which he has experienced (and we have not). More, he is exactly who we would like to be. We will not do better than our teacher, but what if we could become like Jesus? Isn’t that the worthiest goal for our lives?
“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven”(Matt 23:9).
Jesus is blasting the Pharisees here for their shallow, status-driven religion. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”(Matt 23:5). He explains that part of what they love is “being called rabbi by others”(Matt 23:7). Instructing his disciples, he tells them “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant”(Matt 23:8-11). What is Jesus teaching here and what does it mean for modern disciples?
First, he is clearly not being literal. Jesus cannot possibly be teaching us not to call anyone a rabbi, a father, or an instructor. We have physical fathers (Heb 12:9) and many of us are fathers. Paul even uses the term father in a spiritual sense: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel”(1 Cor 4:15). Some people are teachers, instructors, and fathers—and Jesus is not teaching us that we can’t call them that.
Jesus is critiquing a system of earthly honor that feeds our desires for pride. These Pharisees are using their knowledge about God and his law to gain respect and privileges for others. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples involved in this. In two of these statements, he tells us not to be called rabbi or instructor (Matt 23:8, 10), meaning that we are seeking to be known as someone important. Such distinctions raise us up above others; Jesus reminds us that “you are all brothers”(Matt 23:8). Such distinctions make us greater than others; Jesus reminds us that “the greatest among you shall be your servant”(Matt 23:11).
Jesus forbids us from pledging allegiance to men. We should not be called rabbi because “you have one teacher” or instructors because “you have one instructor.” We don’t call men fathers because “you have one Father.” These words imply more than an acknowledgement of someone’s job or role. They speak to an allegiance—that such men are my teacher or my father. We have already given this allegiance to God.
Jesus’ words here are far deeper than simply which titles we should not give to men. They stress our need to limit our view of ourselves—and others—and expand our view of God. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”(Matt 23:12).